Remembering Hunger

Although Foodways Philippines is the first project in which Spatula&Barcodes take up hunger as an explicit theme, questions about hunger have emerged in earlier projects, and we are finding ourselves revisiting those earlier experiences in a new light.  We share some of that reflection with you here.

In 2002, Laurie Beth created Versteckte Kinder in Darmstadt, Germany, with the support of Michael Peterson, Sallie McCorkle, Ute Ritschel, and Peter Fischer. Versteckte Kinder consisted of a hundred small wooden houses spread throughout the forest Art path. Each house was marked with a mezuzah–an indicator that a house is Jewish. 

a small plywood house with a mezzuzah on the front and containing a red and black notebook and a breadroll

The project was a memorial for Jewish children who survived the holocaust by hiding in the forest. Laurie Beth’s “uncle” (the husband of her mother’s brother’s wife’s sister), Leon Schor, was one of these children, and as she was growing up family members told her about how Leon’s memory of extreme hunger from his childhood was so strong that, for the rest of his life, he would never differentiate between foods based on taste. For the opening of the show, a small loaf of bread was placed in each house, a personal memorial for children like Leon.

It was as part of Versteckte Kinder that Laurie Beth first paid close attention to the Grimm’s fairy tales, mining them at the time for references to the forest, as each house also contained a small handwritten book with a passage from one story.  Ten years later, Laurie Beth and Michael revisited the Grimm’s collection for references to food as part of their project Grim(m) Essen.  In this process, Laurie Beth read all 209 of the Grimm’s tales and from these we selected 16 scenes to be visually staged with participants during peripatetic conversions in the woods.

a woman in a red kerchief kneeling over a pile of ashes

These included the lentils that were thrown into the ashes to be picked out by Cinderella (Ashentputten), the fruit that could not be accessed by the Handless Maiden (Das Mädchen ohne Händen), the lamb’s lettuce that was stolen from the witch by Rapunzel’s father, and the multiple images of food (bread crumbs, gingerbread house, chicken bone finger) from Hansel and Gretel.

another woman in a red kerchief with her hands behind her back, trying to bite a pear that is hanging from a tree in the forest

What emerged in this research were the pervasive images of the miraculous appearance of abundant food, which truly must have seemed like the best of all possible magic at the time the tales were collected. They demonstrate that hunger (or at least food insecurity) was integral to the lived experiences of the story-tellers. In response to our conversational prompts, many participants in the walks recalled years of hunger in Germany during and following the second world war. 

a group of people, some in white Spatula&Barcode aprons, walking down a gravel path in the forest

Here in Manila, we are reading Filipino folk tales and finding some very similar narratives that align magic with easy access to food–a stick that becomes a fish every time it is placed in a soup pot, yet never disappears or diminishes, a sugar cane field that matures in record time, betel nuts that act as messengers, beans that turn to gold, animals that regenerate the parts of them that are consumed.

an artwork: a paper mache tree inside a glass bell jare
(2009) one of a series of vitrines by Roberto Feleo depicting contemporary takes on Filipino folktales

In the Foodways series (which we began in 2015), questions about hunger have emerged at some point in every iteration. In Foodways Darmstadt (Germany), one of our local partners was Foodsharing Darmstadt, a student group that rescues food that would otherwise go to waste and makes it available for free to everyone in their community. We admired these folks for their initiative, dedication, and openness. Today they are also active in supporting Ukrainians and feeding people impacted by the pandemic.  While their motivations seem almost as much aesthetic (food should not be wasted) as they are ameliorative, they’re clearly motivated by a nonpartisan politics of justice and mutual aid.

a woman in a green tshirt and white apron in front of a table with canned foods and banannas, holding a small canvas bag that says "food sharing"

In Foodways Melbourne (Australia), food waste again emerged again in our conversations during our “compost workshop” in the context of family and memory. Because we were excavating participant’s own food waste as a prompt for storytelling, we learned a lot about the practical approaches and emotional investments we have around the (parts of) food that is not eaten.

a woman at a kitchen counter in front of other seated women, holding a bucket of compost and a pair of tongs

Our pop-up project Rage Grief Comfort & really drove home how sometimes folks are almost irrationally concerned about food waste. Despite the fact that we were assiduously collecting the tomatoes that folks were throwing at the wall, over and over we were asked whether they were being wasted.

a room with a plastic sheet on the wall, a large table covered with tomatoes, and a woman throwing a tomato at the wall

We wrote a bit about this in our essay “Doing Food, Doing Climate” (our Performance Research essay which followed on our work for Foodways Melbourne). For that piece we found research suggesting that the amount of food wasted in the world is roughly equal to the shortfall. In other words, some experts believe that if we could find ways to eliminate food waste it would solve the problem of hunger. But our experience of people’s tendency to moralize about food waste is one of the reasons we’re suspicious of simplistic assertions that eliminating food waste would eliminate hunger–it’s too pat and involves utopian (often techno-utopian) fantasies about perfect systems. 

line drawing logos of various food items such as rice cookers, okra, pizza, glassware

This relationship between food waste and hunger re-emerges in our pandemic project, COVID Foodways, which is part of the work we did with partners in Uruguay. Interviewees talked about the early days of the pandemic, when we saw unsold milk being dumped on dairy pastures, livestock killed and buried in pits because they’d grown too big for processing machinery that had been closed for months, and long lines at food pantries. We also heard about many mutual aid projects in the same spirit as those German student activists. 

a man standing at the back of a steel milk truck that has milk gushing out of it onto the ground

In the United States, where Foodways Madison focused on systems, the most explicit discussions of hunger were during our focus on food security. To our survey question “What would it take for everyone to be food secure?” we received many interesting answers, most demonstrating what we might call a “vernacular” systems analysis. In other words, people linked the food system question about food security to broader systemic questions of education, employment, and social justice more broadly.

However, our most direct opportunity to provide meals for people who might need them was during our day-to-day presence as artists-in-residence in the public library, where many of Madison’s homeless spend their daytime hours. We often served pancakes, or waffles, or cookies, or pickles.  This is where the question of choice (about both the contents and the manner of eating) first came to our attention. It’s often presumed that people who are hungry should give up their preferences about what or how they eat, yet one of the satisfying things about our interactions with unhoused folks in our Community Research Kitchen was learning about specific preferences for what, when, where, and how to eat. In contrast with Laurie Beth’s relative Leon, whose desire to have initiative around food seemed to have disappeared, agency over food was essential to our participants. This theme of agency, and the related one of pleasure, has become integral to our thinking here.

Our collaborator Sigrid Peterson making lefse with the public.

In South America, the focus on sustainability suggested a future-oriented focus on hunger–that actions we take to protect the environment today will have an impact on hunger in the future.  But because hunger is so often understood as an immediate, pressing need of a population that lacks sufficient food in the here and now, concerns about both past and future are set aside (to our peril).

Laurie Beth and two other people preparing food at a table with cooking pots, trays and mugs

Grappling with hunger demands that we attend to both memory and futurity. On NPR, we recently heard a story about “hunger stones” now visible in the Elbe River in the Czech Republic. These stones, which record famine-causing droughts from 1416 onwards, only appear when river water levels are low, as they are today.

a large rock with german writing carved into it next to a river's edge
photo by Norbert Kaiser from Science Alert

Laurie Beth’s ongoing research on trauma tourism has revealed the degree to which hunger is part of many of the forms of violence that are recalled by the memorials she studies. Among the most famous depictions of hunger during the holocaust are the pictures of emaciated bodies of survivors that were taken at the liberation of the concentration camps such as those taken by the US Army Signal Corps photographers at Ebensee.  Gas chambers and and crematoria may be more perverse but hunger was a primary weapon of the Nazis.

a group of men concentration camp survivors, emaciated and wearing only blankets
This photograph was taken by US Army Signal Corps photographer Arnold E. Samuelson. Austria, May 7, 1945.

Indeed, hunger has been weaponized throughout history.  Siege warfare is recorded in the bible and in Greek tragedies. It underwrites the Irish Potato Famine where British colonial economic decisions wildly exacerbated natural conditions.

an outdoor sculpture on a big plaza of very thin looking people
Rowan Gillespie, Famine (1987) in Dublin. Image from https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Famine-Irish-history

Similarly, violence is at the center of the Ukrainian Holodomor, Stalin’s genocide by famine intended to suppress the Ukrainian independence movement in the 1930s. The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv is closed by the current war which itself is having a ripple effect of rising grain prices and decreased food supply around the world. 

museum goers looking at a display in front a a wall of text in Ukrainian
By Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada – Interior of Holodomor Memorial Museum – Kiev – Ukraine – 01, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64109501

Nevertheless, the understanding of hunger as a form of violence, rather than as a failure of nature or technology, is still contested. As part of our research for the Philippines project, we’re both reading Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid (2008) by Jenny Edkins, who argues that hunger is structurally integral to modernity and cannot be solved by it. It’s a challenge to the ways that hunger and hunger relief have been conventionally understood but suggests the possibility for rethinking hunger in which arts and humanities have a role to play. Additional recommended readings about hunger from a humanities perspective include:

So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance by Patrick Anderson (2010)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay (2107)

We’d welcome further suggestions!

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